Neil Postman & Steve Powers – How to Watch TV News

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Neil Postman, as a philosopher, is deceptively simple. His writing is so easy that by this point it took me seconds to read a page. McLuhan’s name also appear, so it’s obvious he’s not providing new paradigms of thought. He continues McLuhan’s critical examination of technology, not taking it for granted by asking what it means. If the medium is the message, then this is book expands on news as a medium.

Before I talk about this book, I must make the theory clear. When McLuhan uses it, he means any kind of technology. For him, the newspaper and the text are two different medias. Postman takes a saner, more intiuiative approach to his theory and uses the tradition of medium as a tool for transmitting content. He examines what kind of content works better with medium according to its traits. Although it’s a different modus operandi of analysis, it’s still an extremely useful one. Actually, it’s necessary for us to understand any kind of communication.

Postman and Powers talk a lot about the importance of advertising. No one should be surprised by this. Ads are everywhere. Just go outside. An activity as innocent as waiting for the bus will involve advertising, in the station and on the bus itself. The chapters about media-as-business don’t reveal too much since, in my experience, people already perceive the TV networks as a business anyway.

The interesting and important parts are when the authors discuss what news is. It’s the type of discussion we don’t have enough. When you criticize the news, or TV, for being stupid people will reply with, ‘oh, it’s business, of course they will do what makes money’. Living in a strictly Neoliberal mindset, this makes sense. Adopting a less dogmatic mindset means asking yourself what kind of product you’re consuming. Without asking yourself this, you can’t tell the difference between a snack and a meal.

It’s this crucial distinction that makes all the figures about adverts alarming. News isn’t exactly entertainment. Things that happen in it are supposed to real. News show stand in contrast to other shows in that they’re meant to provide information. That’s why you’re angrier when Trump says ‘grab them by the pussy’ then when the Joker abuses Harley Quinn. Clearly, news are a different product than other shows, like RealiTV or cartoons.

Since news deliver information, the authors always view news by that prism. If these parts seem worrying, it’s only because they force you to ask whether you’re actually learning anything by the news. Their examination of the visual image is fantastic. It’s not an attack on the image itself. Rather, they examine what kind of information an image delivers, and what ideas work better in images.

News aren’t documentaries (A subject they sadly didn’t touch). News consists of incomplete stories framed as complete with pictures. Yet the story is so much more than a picture. A picture isn’t actually worth a thousand words since these words can contradict each other. They also point out how images express more than tell, show something concrete but don’t include context. It’s not that images are bad, but news information demands context, order, and meaning. Images aren’t enough to deliver those.

The print media also contains pictures, but then they analyze its structure. It’s another thing that’s easy to miss. The newspaper is a mosaic of images, where there is less hierarchy and more control for the reader. Although the editor decides which items will be on the paper and how much they will stick out, they can’t control the order of reading. Choosing to watch one story before the other in TV news is quite hard work. Why put all this effort into rewinding and fast-forwarding?

It’s sad that the authors didn’t emphasis the viewers’ ability to be selective on the media they consume. Although they’re not totally deterministic, Powers’ final conclusion, when discussing new technology leans towards gatekeeping. What he misses is that gatekeepers won’t necessarily care or know the well-being of the viewer. A gatekeeper by definition puts less power in the viewer’s hand. The power of selection is what we need to teach.

Some optimistic researchers will say we’re all naturally selective. I don’t think so, and the high amount of TV watching and viral content is more evidence of that. Selectivity means people will have a guideline of their own that makes them choose the content. They will not scroll the popular YouTube videos to see what’s happening, but rather search for specific topics. The internet actually does increase selectivity, mostly because you have to with all this information.

What they miss about information glut is that it demands being selective, unlike the TV. The TV, as a medium, is a regression in terms of intelligence and ability to convey information. Postman keeps proving this here. The authors missed that technology changes and can amplify parts of ourselves. Their pessimism misses the internet’s nature of information glut which forces people to be selective in some way. That said, selectivity demands critical thinking and that demands a lot of effort and our education system don’t really support it.

An interesting chapter focuses on the televising of trials. It’s one of the highlights, since it illustrates more clearly than any chapter how TV works. When a trial is televised, everyone knows that one person is tried. We’re judges by nature, and by putting someone on TV you put the person in front of millions of judges. Beyond that, the nature of summary of TV means our judgment will be quicker and less informed. Many of us will not even know what the final decision was. We’ll know someone’s been tried, assume he’s guilty or not and move on.

I agree with the authors that TV should stay out of court. They spread disinformation, not information. A person witnessing a trial is seeing it as it is, all the information with no edited highlights. On the news, you can’t show the whole trial but have to edit the highlights.

This book is directly related to Amusing Ourselves to Death. That book laid down the nature of TV and Postman’s demand for a boundary between information and entertainment. It is a discussion for a different book, but keep in mind these are some of the assumptions Postman and Powers bring. Information and entertainment must not go together. They don’t view TV as bad in and of itself, at least not in this book but merely as horrible at providing information. Although they expose their bias of technological pessimism a little later, they still lean towards being critical instead of dogmatic. After all, they provide some tools of analyzing language and these tools can be used against them. The point of the book is anyway not to make you agree with Postman so much as provide you with tools to be more critical, more on-guard.

It’s a good book on communication and media studies. It should be read by everyone since everyone is affected by the news. That said, it’s on a small scale. It doesn’t provide a theory but apply it. We need such books since sometimes theories can exist so much time in the abstract they lose any foundation in reality. Anyone expecting a series of revelation might be disappointed that this is not as ambitious as Amusing Ourselves to Death. It does provide a nice extension of the argument and is more accessible to layman, since it’s more of a toolbox than a theory. Postman’s books do sell, but they should sell more. Here is a philosopher who deals directly with life, cares deeply for being human and isn’t hard to understand at all.

3.5 fake news reports out of 5

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Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

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Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5

Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia

The new Star Wars¬†film has a woman with a gun shooting people and committing other acts of violence. She also has various other skills. This has been described as feminist by some, in contrast to Princess Leia. If people want more characters (or worse, people) like Rey, then I’m afraid feminism still has a lot to accomplish.

If you praise Rey for her skills and ‘strength’, you’re probably uncomfortable with a female character being a human. This new obsession with resilience, with a power fantasy also leaked itself into discussions around Mad Max. I don’t know which is worse. A power fantasy about violence, or a fantasy about being weak and defined by how a man feels about you.

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Your average Fallout protagonist

Rey has no unique line of dialogue, no reactions that are specific to her that define her personality. Han Solo is a sarcastic, gritty smuggler. Chewbacca is his partner who growls and says whatever is on his mind. Finn is a moral hero who’s too afraid to be a hero. Kylo Ren is an angry teenager dying for a little bit of power. BB-8 is a childish, more energetic version of R2-D2.

What makes Rey unique?

People praised Rey for being strong, for being skilled and ‘surviving on her own’. If you played a Fallout game, you know that’s not much of an achievement. A character survives on a wasteland because the author wrote it so. A character can fix a spaceship because the author put skill points into that area.

Characters are not defined by skills. They are defined by their personalities, their desires and needs and flaws and inner conflicts. These are the qualities that drive stories. If skills were enough, then my Amazon in Diablo II would have been one of the best female characters ever.

The skills of the Amazon don’t move the story of Diablo. Why the Amazon would go chasing after Diablo could be an obsession with morality, or revenge, or desire for glory. Each of these traits would lead to a drastically different story with different themes.

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From one fantasy to the next, we still struggle to draw women as human beings

A hero concerned more with glory would interact differently with characters. They would boast and they would only take missions that will grant them fame. A hero that seeks revenge will have tunnel vision, won’t bother about anything but killing Diablo. In all of these stories the Amazon still has the skills. She can still throw javelins, yet they’re so different.

Princess Leia is more of a human than Rey. She might be a damsel in distress, but that’s her initial role. It’s not her personality. Throughout the film we learn who she is by how she speaks. She’s confident in her position of power. She’s so used to it she speaks to everyone in a bossy way. As soon as she’s rescued she takes command of the gang. Notice how, before they reach Leia they’re a bunch of weird buffons.

Rey doesn’t affect her surroundings like this. I often forgot she even existed. I cannot remember a scene that her personality contributed anything to. There is a bit of ‘tough girl’ persona going on, but it’s not well-developed. Rey screams here and there for Finn to stop holding her hand. Instead of sounding strong, she sounds like a grumpy tsundere. It’s shocking she also didn’t call him ‘baka’.

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Looks feminine, relies on a guy and still has more personality

The tough girl persona can work, of course. Furiosa was a cliche, but the creators (kind of) knew what makes the cliche work. Everything in her appearance pointed to a hero so rugged they have no existence outside of posing with shotguns. She has a distinct look that fits her archetype. Rey’s archetype is more vague. She’s tough, but not in a unique manner. Furiosa was tough in an 80’s action way. She’s inspired by Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone – the desexualized human who exists to kill people because it’s fun. Of course, they did tack the whole redemption thing but I already addressed Fury Road‘s failure at feminism.

It’s weird how Western cinema still struggles with female characters. You don’t have to explore anime too much to find diverse casts. Just look to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Attack on Titan. Even shows that rely on sexiness and fanservice, like Freezing, still have a cast that’s as diverse as their design. What’s better is that all of these characters can be developed without hiding their femininity. The characters of Freezing don’t need a tough exterior to fight the Novas.

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Leia isn’t satisfied with just getting rescued – she reacts.

The request for more women who ‘kick ass’ (basically, are violent) is odd. The obsession with power also makes me question whether these people even understand how fiction works. Fiction isn’t a fantasy to escape from reality to. Fiction, like any other art form, brings us closer to reality. It’s supposed to connect to it in some way. It can be anything from exploring pure visual beauty or themes of life and death. A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.

I wonder how long it will take until this trend will die. Trends come and go, anyway. We now have an obsession with toughness and grimdarkness. We used to have an obsession with escapist brightness. Someday we’ll look at it all and laugh at how stupid we are.

Further reading: Keely’s series of posts on Strong Female Characters

Iron Man (2008)

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I almost wish she was the center of the film

“Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?

There’s a reason why the film ends with the riff from the famous Black Sabbath song but without the lyrics. Black Sabbath’s song described a flawed and conflicted person. He might be interesting, but nothing we’d hope to be. The same thing can’t be said of Iron Man‘s Tony Star. Black Sabbath said about their character that nobody wants him. You couldn’t find a more unfit description for Tony Stark

If this was just a dumb superhero film, I might have forgiven that. It wouldn’t work well as one anyway, though. There isn’t enough violence and the characters aren’t insane enough. Too many moments hint that the creators wanted to make this an important superhero film. The nature of weaponry is an obvious theme. The creators understand a superhero should be a symbol for some idea, not just a human with superpowers.

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A time before duckface

Tony Stark’s suit leaves little room for exploration, though. It’s not a Medabot. Medabots symbolized toys as weapons, and were an exaggerated portrayal of violent toys. It’s not a Terminator, which was a weapon with the appearance of a human being. Tony Stark’s suit is just a means to save people and instigate the final action scene.

There is something about how weapons can be harmful in the wrong hands, but that’s an idea that goes nowhere. The film never asks if there is more to do with weapons other than attack other human beings or if weaponry (and violence) is a part of being human.

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No hair, no heart?

The people who represent the bad way of using weapons are evil clowns. The Ten Rings are just a gang of mooks who are like the bandits from Borderlands without the humor. As for Obadiah, he was stuck under Tony’s shadow and for some reason we’re expected to dislike him for his evil deeds. No matter how hard the film tries to make Obadiah look like the devil, his story remains more interesting psychologically.

Obadiah’s development happens off-screen, but his is a story that can never get old. He’s a man stuck under another’s shadow who felt like he never got what he deserved. This is a common sentiment and the fact Obadiah still lives a kickin’ life makes it even better. Even as a villain, these ideas could’ve been explored. Why Obadiah wants Stark’s place so much? Why can’t he be content with still being stinking rich? They say no matter what you do there’s always someone better than you. What if there’s only one person who’s better than you?

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This is a sci-fi film, in case you didn’t notice

Obadiah’s motives have nothing to do with these. He’s evil so there will be someone to fight with (and also because he’s not as pretty). These so-called motives are here to put a cover that a film is serious and that its villains have motives.

Tony has some sort of arc, but it barely qualifies as a cheap psycho-drama. His development happens in 20 minutes. After spending some time in a cave and seeing that people shoot each other in real life, he develops a desire to save the world. That’s all that happens. It doesn’t affect anything else. He’s still a womanizer and he still loves being funny.

He was a selfish person in the beginning. That was why we saw him have sex with a lot of women and being told he has nothing because he doesn’t have a family. You’d think that such a person would change dramatically along with his desire to save the world. You don’t have to make a complete 180-turn. Impmon became less of a bully but he still retained his sarcastic personality. Tony doesn’t become anything new but is just given a desire to save the world.

Allow me to be cynical, but that’s because the film wants to keep Tony’s coolness. The beginning isn’t meant to satire the lives of the rich and famous. It’s meant to portray them as cool, charismatic and living an ideal life. Tony may have given up selling weapons, but no way will he give up the cool lifestyle of casinos and having sex with anyone he wants. Even if the rich truly live such perfect lives with no problems at all, isn’t it insulting? Most people will never live this way, so why dangle the carrot?

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Tony aims for Chris Martin’s ex

The seriousness of the film is ridiculous when you look deeper, but there’s a good side to this. The storytelling is so focused that it feels much shorter than it is. No scenes are unnecessary. There are no extra characters that don’t serve some purpose later. Action scenes don’t clog the film with incoherent explosions. In fact, there are few of them and even in those scenes they don’t go full retard. They’re not a series of endless explosions but a collection of set-pieces that build up to a conclusion. It’s not one of the best action scenes ever, but it’s purposeful.

Pepper Potts is also a unique character to see in such a film. It’s been a while since we had a female side kick that could be worthwhile without packing heat. She’s not developed, but the script never lets her fall into cliches. She never becomes pure eye candy, or a woman whose character is passed off as strong because she kills people. She almost ended up as an empty character, but Paltrow’s performance gives her a humanity everyone else lacks. Everyone is charismatic enough, but Paltrow is the only one who plays like her character can star in a variety of other stories.

Guitars also make constant apperance in the musical score. It’s a bold decision. It’s not the most uncommon element yet but it’s still rare compared to cliched orchestras. This adds some punch to many scenes. If the only point of Tony’s character is that he’s cool and macho, add some macho guitars to go along with it.

Iron Man became popular because it’s a well-constructed film. All the professionals in the film industry and I still see a lot of incoherent stories. Simplicity is rarely a death sentence in films, especially when you want to make some easy fun. Iron Man’s attempts at depth aren’t convincing, but it’s fun enough.

3 cool suits out of 5

Ian McEwan – Atonement

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There are two competing novels here. One is driven by a character’s flaw and how it brought her to do a terrible thing. The other is a manipulative, Shawsank Redemption-like tale where the author takes a character who has it made and puts a lot of external troubles on it in order to make us sympathize. Surrounding these novels is some great writing that made you understand why so few authors try minimalism.

There’s no reason to sympethize with Robbie. He has no character. He has no flaw to struggle against. The trouble he faces is all external, and it doesn’t take any effort to just pile terrible events on the character. It’s especially easy to pile on these events, and leave the character almost unscarred to show us how strong and capable he is.

Maybe McEwan wants to inspire me to be good with Robbie’s character, but Robbie needs to have a character first. After being sent to the frontlines because of nothing, Robbie remains humanitarian and nice to everyone. He tries to save a woman and a child, and even a pencil pusher that’s almost being lynched.

Why should he want to save him, though? Robbie ate shit all the way. His only companions aren’t very pleasant. Why shouldn’t anger take the best of him? Soldiers are often angry at ‘pencil pushers’ and office workers. These people make a lot of decisions from behind their desks without seeing the bombings and the fighting. There’s no reason for Robbie to try to save anyone, let alone what soldiers especially despise. There is no depth to this ‘goodness’. It’s a hook to try to make us like Robbie, but that’s exactly what makes him so boring and unappealing.

Only at the end Robbie does something less than admirable, but McEwan doesn’t let all his events reach their logical conclusion. Robbie is barely scarred. All that needs to prevent him from hitting the bottom is some cliched crap about the power of love. Does McEwan thinks that after all Robbie went through, a women’s love is enough? That’s a recipe for cheap escapism.

By never letting Robbie succumb to the logical conclusion of going through hell, he paints a world of black and white. He doesn’t want to. He tries really hard to get to the emotional core of the characters. It’s espceially evident in the small characters and Briony, but all of them deserved so much more than being on a novel where Robbie stars.

Briony is, if not exactly complex, a real character. The deed she tries to atone for comes out of her personality. She does it not just to make the plot move because it’s the reasonable thing to do for a character who lives more inside her head than in the world. Everything else about her stems from this. All her other decisions and actions comes from her character. The end of her story is also consistent with her themes.

It’s almost misandrist how McEwan gives zero depth to the male character while writing Briony so real.

The post-modern Gotcha! at the end doesn’t really redeem this flaw. If anything, it just makes Briony far deeper and Robbie shallower. It’s a twist that serves the story, but it doesn’t excuse spending so many pages with someone with less character than a shovel. It doesn’t excuse the complete lack of even hinting at Robbie is not a saint. I recall how Atwood failed back in The Blind Assassin. Being sexually attractive is not enough to make a man a saint.

Between these two stories there is a lot of writing. It’s mostly descriptions, but if everyone described like McEwan then it’d make reading so much easier.

McEwan’s greatest prose is found in the middle, writing about the war effort. His attention to small details and every person who passes by is not because it makes it ‘more real’, or to pad the book in attempts to impress. He writes every passer-by like he’s the star of his own novel. Every one of them has his own little short story. They’re so good that you tend to forget Robbie is even there.

It’s so good that the bluntness can be forgiven. McEwan writes like a sledgehammer. He describes everything, and then writes a literary critique of it. This makes Atonement a funny novel. It’s both long and very easy to read. I’d normally attack an author for being that blunt, but it’s deceptive. The emotional insight he shows with the soldiers, both on the frontlines and the hospital contains much more than what he writes.

How an author can fail on what his story focuses and writes beautifully the sidelines is beyond me. Atonement is written by an author of great talent. There’s enough her to enjoy – Briony’s character, the various digressions and descriptions – that it’s easy to forget where McEwan fails. I’m really tired about reading about sexually attractive, righteous and perfect guys whose only troubles are external. It’s not a brilliant novel, but it has plenty of hints of brilliance.

3 nurses out of 5

All Games are Storytelling

All games are interactive stories. The dictionary defines ‘game’ as an interactive pastime meant to entertain. Before video games, it’s easy to see why this would be the optimal definitons. There are no characters in hide-and-seek or in basketball, but let’s describe them. Basketball is about two opposite teams trying to complete an objective, preventing the other one from completing theirs and thus coming out as winners. Hide-and-seek also has this structure of two opposite teams, only this time one team has just one person. Doesn’t this simple descriptions sound like a plot structure waiting to be filled? Isn’t Star Wars also about two opposite teams, trying to achieve their objectives and preventing the other from completing theirs?

It wasn’t apparent then. Basketball and hide-and-seek contain no characters. There’s no good and evil, and the opposite team don’t represent anything. This carried itself into the early video games, like in Pong. The two sides of Pong have no difference between them. Quickly, though, stories begun to appear. Pac-Man is a story. It’s a story of a creature running away from his enemies, collecting MacGuffins and occasionally finding the strength to face them by eating special fruits. Somewhere, someone wrote an article about Pac-Man being a story about drugs. Space Invaders is also a story. What’s the difference between it and a stereotypical action film? Both feature a hero killing a lot of bad guys in order to reach the Big Bad.

The story is told via the game mechanics. For a specific analysis, see my essay about Five Nights at Freddy’s where I noted how its game mechanics contribute to the storytelling. The game mechanics are the tools and obstacles the heroes face. The way they’re being used can tell us about the character. Pac-Man can try to collect the dots as fast as he can, or he can take his time and try to avoid the ghosts more. He can immidiately for the fruits, or keep them until things get tough. The ghosts also have their own behavior. They can either be programmed to follow you if they spot you, or merely go in a set movement pattern. I’m not sure what is actually programmed in Pac-Man, but that’s irrelevant.

All of these can tell us what the story is about and what it means, both what’s automatic and the choices that are left to the player. In literary analysis, a choice like whether the hero hurries to his objective or be cautious matters. It tells us about his general character. The enemy AI tells us about their character, too. If the ghosts have a set movement pattern, the hero faces a dumb, predictible enemy. If they follow him, he has a bigger challenge. The main difference between fiction and video games, however, is the element of choice.

This is what Klosterman said in his essay, “Pong X Infinity”. The analysis of video games should not ask what does this mean, but what could it mean. As I pointed out, you can choose Pac-Man’s behavior, and thus can lead to multiple different stories. RPG fans love to praise Fallout 2 and New Vegas for their amount of choices, but in fact all they do is expand on the element that defines video games. A choice whether to be more evasive or more confrontational may seem like a gaming preferance, but for literary nerds this is one of the most important character-telling moments.

That’s why praising a game for having a lot of choices as good storytelling is silly. Choices, as a storytelling device, are only useful if they expand the meanings the story can have. The choice in Pac-Man’s story are irrelevant because itx story leads nowhere. In the end, it’s just a cute arcade game. In Planescape: Torment, the choices matter because each influence not just the outcome but the meaning of the story.

It seems that recently, most games that are praised as story-reach are just games with a lot of text. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t take advantage of the unique medium. There is some ground to the criticism that games like Fallout and Planescape are sometimes like interactive novels, like a visual novel with more action. However, the sandbox style is a great example of mechanic that’s just as important for storytelling. Visual novels is merely steering a novel in a few possible direction. In Fallout and Planescape, you have much more freedom of what to include or exclude from your story. You even have the option of forgetting about the main story and be a boring, homicidal maniac. This freedom is useless unless, of course, we’re given interesting choices.

This is not an attack on the visual novel or text-based interactive fiction. Both are great formats that can tell good stories, but they don’t take advantage of the video game medium. They’re an extension of literature, more than anything. Fallout, Planescape: Torment, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and Five Nights at Freddy’s are examples of games which take the advantage of the mechanics to tell a great story.

While the mechanics how the game tells its story, sometimes they go against it. I’ll explore in a later post when does a game mechanic exists for both storytelling and gameplay purposes, and when it exists solely for one of them. An example is how Bonnie in Five Nights at Freddy’s teleports. If you played the game, you can think about this and whether it exists solely to offer gameplay challenge or also to add to the story. I’ll write my views in a different post.